Out of the dark

When Lateesha was in elementary school in South Minneapolis, she often came to school starving and exhausted.

She was afraid to fall asleep in her bedroom for fear that a father’s friend would come in and molest her, and there was never anything to eat in the house.

“I used to be hungry as hell. Ain’t nothing in the house but beer in the refrigerator,” she said. “I couldn’t wait to go to school so I could eat breakfast and lunch — so I could go under my desk and sleep.” 

The sleeping habit got her suspended, and then she started staying at friends’ houses and hanging out with a girl who got her into drugs and prostitution. She was only 11. 

After one week of prostitution, the girl who recruited Lateesha handed her $2,000. Soon she had a pimp and got addicted to crack cocaine. She eventually landed in a treatment program, but when she got out she returned to the streets and was known as a “renegade” for being a prostitute without a pimp. Some days, she earned up to $1,000 a day for trading sex on Lake Street. When she placed ads on Backpage.com, she said she could earn up to $3,000 a day. 

Community leaders in Minneapolis and across the state are working hard to make sure girls like Lateesha don’t slip through the cracks. They are turning a spotlight on the problem of youth prostitution and child sex trafficking through public awareness campaigns and a push for state funding to help victims of sexual exploitation get their lives back on track. 

Now 17 years old, Lateesha is turning her life around with the help of a program at YouthLink, an organization that serves homeless youth on the edge of downtown Minneapolis. She’s earned her GED, has been off of crack cocaine for several months and plans to attend Minneapolis Community & Technical College to study social work. She dreams of starting her own nonprofit to help girls get out of prostitution and rebuild their lives. 

Tammy Owens, Lateesha’s case manager at YouthLink, has high hopes for her and has been impressed by her determination.

Owens works for YouthLink’s S.I.S.T.E.R.S program, which stands for Sustaining Independence & Self-determination through Empowerment, Respect and Success. The program serves young women between the ages of 16 and 21 who have been sexually exploited or trafficked, or are at risk of getting involved in prostitution.

Owens connects the youth to educational resources, housing and other community programs. She also spends time with them to develop better body images.

“We go that extra mile to meet them where they are and celebrate everything about them,” Owens said. “I’m interested in helping people reclaim their bodies.”

The program currently has 26 youth involved. Of those young women, seven are experiencing long-term homelessness.

They meet Wednesday nights to talk through their issues. Owens challenges the girls to come up with five things they love about themselves in five seconds.

As for housing, she refers them to youth shelters in the area, but beds have long been scarce. She also sends them to domestic violence shelters as another housing option.

Most of the girls involved in the program have been prostituted in Minneapolis, but some have been trafficked from other cities like Duluth or sent to places like Las Vegas, said Josephine Pufpaff, director of strategic design and evaluation at YouthLink.

“When you are working with homeless youth, you’re working with a constant pool of potential victims,” she said.

Some girls are trafficked to Chicago, North Dakota and Iowa with the promise they’ll become dancers. Instead, they are lured into prostitution, said Artika Roller, a program director for The Family Partnership’s PRIDE program, which provides support services for people who have experienced sexual exploitation and their families — both teens and adults. 

“We’re in the middle of the nation, and it’s easy to export young women and men out of this area,” Roller said. 

Roller also works with local community groups like YouthLink and the Bridge and park and recreation programs in an effort to prevent sexual exploitation among potential victims and young men who could become exploiters. She’s also in talks with Minneapolis Public Schools leaders about developing a curriculum that addresses ways to prevent sexual exploitation and trafficking. 

As many other advocates and community leaders have suggested, Roller said there needs to be immediate shelter beds and long-term shelters for young women escaping prostitution.

“If you can get a young women from her pimp, then where do you take her to be safe? Incarceration and locking up — that is not a best practice for working with victims,” she said. “You have to have a safe place for them to go.” 

City law enforcement officials have pushed the issue to the front burner.

Minneapolis Police Sgt. Grant Snyder has been working fulltime on fighting youth prostitution and trafficking since the beginning of the year. 

One of the biggest challenges for police is getting a sense of the scope of the problem. There are no reliable statistics showing how many youth are being exploited, Snyder said. 

“From a law enforcement perspective we know what we see and we recognize there’s a substantial problem,” Snyder said. “… We know from our own investigations that there is a very strong connection between runaways and homeless youth and sex trafficking victims. All of our sex trafficking victims are part of that population.” 

It’s hard to get a sense of how many homeless youth are being exploited, but one study suggests that 30 percent of runaways are participating in survival sex within 48 hours of leaving their homes, Snyder said.

“When they’re on the run, their only currency becomes their body because they don’t have a pocketful of cash. They’re isolated,” he said. 

Snyder said the police department has focused on building relationships with at-risk youth to try to prevent them from getting into prostitution.

“Our first priority has and continues to be the victim’s welfare — both physically and emotionally,” he said. “As part of that, rescues become a top priority for us in the initial stages of our cases.”

He said cases aren’t started with a focus on prosecution. Instead, officers work on developing a rapport with the youth and others looking out for their welfare — people working on runaway investigations and street outreach workers. 

All but one of the youth prostitution cases Minneapolis Police have investigated this year have been tied to Backpage.com, Snyder said.

City Council Member Elizabeth Glidden (8th Ward) authored a resolution in August that called on Backpage.com to end the publication of their adult classified ads section.

Glidden has been very engaged in efforts to fight youth prostitution and has worked to brief residents in her ward on the problem.

She said the public needs to be mindful of the language used when discussing the issue.

“It’s about changing mindsets and language we’ve become accustomed to,” she said, referring to the use of the word “johns” for someone who pays for sex. “Why are we being so soft on someone who’s a predator with children. Why do they get the term John?”

Liz McDougall, general counsel for Village Voice Media Holdings, said Backpage.com has a “24/7 triple-tier prevention system” to fight childhood sexual exploitation. The system has an automated filter, two levels of “human review of ads” in the adult and dating categories, and a strong law enforcement support system, she said. 

She said the trend of “identifying and vilifying” a single website — previously Craigslist and now Backpage.com — as the “cause of the problem and key to the solution is ill-founded and unproductive.”

In an email, she said: “Unless the Internet is wholly shut down, the end result of the current strategy will be that our children are advertised through offshore websites who do not endeavor to prevent such activity, who do not report potential cases of exploitation to law enforcement, who do not expeditiously cooperate with law enforcement to rescue victims and arrest pimps — and who are outside the jurisdiction of U.S. law enforcement so they can thumb their noses at U.S. law enforcement requests, even pleas, for evidence to find a child or stop a perpetrator.”

To date this year, 16 people have been charged with felonies in Hennepin County for crimes related to youth prostitution, said Anne Taylor, senior assistant Hennepin County Attorney in the Juvenile Prosecution Division. Four of those have resulted in guilty verdicts. The rest of the cases are moving through the court system. 

Penalties for promoting or trafficking juveniles can be up to 25 years in prison depending on the defendant’s prior record.

In recent weeks, a prostitution bust in South Minneapolis has made headlines. Bernard Morris, 55, was charged with three felonies in mid-November for prostituting teens from his home — girls he recruited after they left a treatment facility. 

On Nov. 19, Mark J. Anderson, 52, of Champlin was charged with prostituting a juvenile after he texted a teenage girl and offered to pay her for sex. He met her in an online chat room, and then arranged to pick the girl up at school, but a school official had taken the girl’s phone before the message was delivered, according to the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office. 

According to experts, most girls get involved in prostitution between the ages of 12 and 14.

City Attorney Susan Segal said it’s important to reach out to those at-risk before they get caught up in the sex trade.

“With greater public awareness, we can help protect these kids from being exploited and make sure that the traffickers and the customers, or child molesters, know that if they engage in trying to prostitute our children, the police will investigate, they will be prosecuted and substantial consequences will be imposed,” she said. “The Internet has allowed sex trafficking to be out of sight and, for pimps and traffickers, to appear as a relatively risk-free way to make money. We are in the process of changing the equation.”

City leaders have been talking to downtown hotels and Meet Minneapolis about ways to prevent trafficking and child prostitution. There are plans for a training session early next year so hotels can learn about ways to partner with law enforcement to fight sexual exploitation.

Mike Noble, the innkeeper at the Normandy Inn and president of the Greater Minneapolis Hotel Association, said hotel leaders want to be proactive to fight the problem.

“It’s something that everybody feels is intolerable at any level,” he said. “We want to be on board to stop it.”

Having more people alerted to the issue is crucial for police.

“Any information we get is better than no information,” Snyder said. “This problem is not an in-your-face type of problem. It’s secret. The victims tend to be invisible.” 

The Women’s Foundation, a nonprofit based in the Mill District, has also been a major leader in the fight against trafficking and youth prostitution. The organization has been working on a public awareness campaign called MN Girls Are Not For Sale for a year.

Lee Roper-Batker, executive director of the Women’s Foundation, said the “blinders” are starting to come off for people that this is an issue in the community.

“First there’s a sense of disbelief, and then they hear the stories. And there’s just this fundamental outrage: ‘How can this be happening in 2012 in this country with the resources and wealth that we have,’” she said. “In some ways people are leading in front of us.”  

To date, the foundation has raised $3.7 million for the five-year, $5 million campaign. It’s awarding grants to community organizations working on preventing and fighting youth prostitution. 

The foundation has also been active in lobbying for state and federal policies that create a stronger safety net for victims of sexual exploitation. 

Roper-Batker was scheduled to testify before Congressional leaders in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 30 about the Minnesota model for addressing the problem.

“We’re disturbing business as usual, and we’re disrupting it,” she said. “There’s no doubt in my mind that Minnesota is going to succeed in becoming the first state to take care of our kids who are being sex trafficked and … we’re going to go a long ways toward ending the demand.”

Gov. Mark Dayton signed the Safe Harbors Law in 2011 — legislation that reclassified youth under the age of 16 involved in prostitution as victims instead of criminals. It also increased penalties for promoters, patrons, pimps and traffickers of youth prostitution.

The state Commissioner of Public Safety Mona Dohman and a group of 65 people will deliver a report called “No Wrong Door” to the Legislature next session — a report mandated by the Safe Harbors Law. It calls for $13 million to pay for 50 new housing units and supportive services for sexually exploited youth.

Currently there are only two beds in the state for youth escaping prostitution.

“We are poised to become the very first state in the nation that will create a systemic and statewide response and support for the kids who are victims of child prostitution,” Roper-Batker said. 

Pufpaff, one of YouthLink’s leaders, said she would like to see older youth — 18 to 21 year olds — protected under the Safe Harbors Law, too. 

The organization primarily serves youth in that age group. While she said she’s proud of the state’s leadership on the legislation, she wants to see it amended.

“It excludes these young girls and young men who are just as victimized and in need of an alternative response,” she said. 

Suzanne Koepplinger, executive director of the Minnesota Indian Women’s Resource Center based in Minneapolis, said the trafficking of youth in Minneapolis is likely more widespread than we know.

“It is often cloaked as ‘survival sex’ or not seen as violence due to the normalization of gender violence with many youth, but that does not diminish the crime,” she said. “It is a crime of opportunity and driven by demand. The demand is for younger and younger and more ‘exotic’ looking girls, and the anonymity of the Internet is an additional challenging dynamic. You can go online and order a 10 year old brought to your hotel room and no one need know.”

Just as Lateesha was recruited by a friend into the sex trade, she lured many other girls into prostitution.

Many of the girls were under the age of 15.

She shared the story of buying a girl with no shoes a pair of new boots.

“After I bought her the boots, she felt like she owed me her life,” she said, brushing away tears. “I preyed upon that. … It turned me into a horrible person.”

It took a lot for Lateesha to find her way to YouthLink, including having one of her friends contract HIV. 

Now after nine months of intensive work — getting her GED and processing the pain of her past — she’s ready to move forward and chase her dreams of starting a nonprofit to help other girls.

“I am different than I was,” she said. “Everyone says I’m calmer and more mature.”

When asked what needs to happen to prevent girls from going down the path she took, Lateesha said girls need to know they have other options and school leaders need to pay attention to warning signs.

“For most [girls] it’s not about the money,” she said. “It’s about the attention. They need people they can talk to.”